This Man Was the Only WWII Fighter Pilot in Europe to Earn the Medal of Honor

This Man Was the Only WWII Fighter Pilot in Europe to Earn the Medal of Honor

Stephanie Schoppert - May 26, 2017

During World War II battles were waged as much in the air as they were on the ground. It was not uncommon for fighter pilots to be faced against forces that were five or six times their own. One skilled pilot could take on half a dozen inexperienced pilots and come out victorious. However, those odds were just child’s play to the ones that James Howard faced on January 11, 1944.

James Howell Howard was born in 1913 in Canton, China. His parents were American and his father was an ophthalmologist teaching eye surgery in China. He was 14 when his family returned to the United States and Howard went to school with the intention of going into medicine like his father. It was just before his graduation with his bachelor of Arts degree from Pomona College that he found a different interest. Becoming a Naval Aviator sounded like a much better plan to Howard than six years of medical school and internship.

This Man Was the Only WWII Fighter Pilot in Europe to Earn the Medal of Honor
James Howard when he was a Navy pilot.

So, he entered the U.S. Navy as a naval aviation cadet. In January 1938, he began his flight training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. Just one year later he earned the wings that would one day turn him into a national hero.

In 1939, he was assigned on the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise as a Navy pilot. The carrier was based a Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and he stayed on the until June 1941 when he left the Navy in order to join the American Volunteer Group (AVG). The AVG were also known as the famous Flying Tigers in Burma. During his time with the Flying Tigers he flew 56 missions and was credited with shooting down at least six Japanese airplanes.

He stayed with the Flying Tigers until they disbanded on July 4, 1942 after which Howard returned to the United States. Upon his return, he was commissioned as a captain into the United States Army Air Forces. He was promoted to the rank of Major in 1943 and he was then given the command of the 356th Fighter Squadron in the 354th Fighter Group which was based in the United Kingdom.

In 1943, bomber crews were still facing dire threats from the Luftwaffe as they moved deeper into Germany on bombing raids. Being on a bombing crew was so dangerous that it was statistically impossible for a crew to complete a 25-mission tour in Europe. The Allies needed to do something to help get their bombers to their targets and get them back home. The solution was the P-51 Mustang. The new plane had a more efficient engine, a larger fuel capacity and a larger drop tank. The new plane was able to rendezvous with bomber formations as they flew over Germany and give them the long-range support they needed to fend off German planes and make it home.

Howard was one of the first pilots to take the plane into action and on a cold day in 1944 he showed just what the little plane could do to protect a formation of Flying Fortresses as they tried to make it home from a bombing run. The leader of the bombing run would later say of Howard “they can’t give that boy a big enough award,” and the United States military agreed when they gave him the nation’s highest honor.

On January 11, 1944, Howard and a group of other P-51s were hearing for Oschersleben and Halberstadt. They were about 100 miles southwest of Berlin and the location was home to Germany’s aircraft industry. Hundreds of B-17s and B-24s had been sent to destroy and disrupt the industry.

This Man Was the Only WWII Fighter Pilot in Europe to Earn the Medal of Honor
B-17 Flying Fortresses in bomber formation. www.worldwarphotos

Howard was on his own when he came across a group of Flying Fortresses that were taking fire from 30 German Luftwaffe fighters. The bombers were trying to return from their mission but it was clear that they would not make it without help. Howard decided to stay with the bombers and do whatever he could to protect the B-17 bombers. Howard would later say that he just decided “to stick around.”

In a 1992 interview he expanded a bit saying that “It was up to me to do it, there were 10-men crews in those bombers and no one else to protect them.” It was supposed to be the mission of all the P-51s to protect the bombers but Howard was separated from his group and knew that he could not rendezvous with them and leave the bomber formation undefended.

For more than 30 minutes Howard defended the bombers from the onslaught of German planes. He attacked them repeatedly, bringing down six planes before ran out of ammunition. Even without ammo, Howard refused to leave the bombers and dived onto the enemy planes to prevent them from being able to bring down the Flying Fortresses. But worse than losing three of his guns, Howard also dipped dangerously low on fuel and still remained with the bomber formation as long as possible. Howard’s dedication ensured that all the bombers were able to land safely in Allied territory.

It wasn’t long before news of Howard’s bravery and determination spread throughout the military. The leader of the bombing formation reported “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen. It was a case of one lone American against what seemed to be the entire Luftwaffe. He was all over the wing, across and around it. They can’t give that boy a big enough award.”

It was just a week later that Army Air Forces held a press conference where Major Howard described the attack to dozens of riveted reporters. All the major news organizations picked up the story with True magazine calling Howard the “One Man Air Force.” Howard’s success was credited to him being a typical American pilot and a sensational American airplane. Other fighter pilots during the war could not imagine such bravery. One wrote in his memoirs “An attack by a single fighter on four or five times his own number was not uncommon, but a deliberate attack by a single fighter against thirty-plus enemy fighters without tactical advantage of height or surprise is rare almost to the point of extinction.”

This Man Was the Only WWII Fighter Pilot in Europe to Earn the Medal of Honor
James Howard receiving the Medal of Honor.

In February of 1944, Howard was promoted to lieutenant colonel in recognition of his valor. Just a few months later in June, the General Carl Spaatz presented him with the Medal of Honor. No other fighter pilot in the European theater during WWII was bestowed such honor. He continued on with his military service getting promoted to colonel in 1945 and being assigned base commander of Pinellas Army Airfield. Fighter pilots would be sent to Pinellas Army Air Field in order to get specialized training in gunnery and dive-bombing before being sent overseas. At the end of the war he was credited with six Japanese kills and six German kills, but he was never his kill count that gave him the reputation as an air ace, but rather his actions on that one day.

In 1948 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the United States Air Force Reserve acting as commander of the 96th Bombardment Group. He became a civilian after the war and became Director of Aeronautics for St. Louis, Missouri. However, he remained in the reserve and kept his status as a general.

He would go on to found Howard Research before selling the company and retiring in 1977. In 1991, he finally took the time to write his own memoir about his experiences with the Flying Tigers and flying the P-51 Mustang called Roar of the Tiger. In 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the heroism that earned him the Medal of Honor, Pinellas County proclaimed “General Howard Day” and a permanent exhibit honoring him was unveiled at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport. He died the following year at the age of 81.